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Surge in Diabetes Among Women and Minorities

by Jennifer Wider, MD

The risk of developing diabetes has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, particularly for women and minorities, according to research in the October 8 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association. Roughly one-third of all Americans born in the year 2000 will suffer from diabetes, and more than half of all Hispanic women born in 2000 will develop the disease.

"Increases in obesity and sedentary behavior are the major drivers of the diabetes surge," according to K. M. Venkat Narayan, MD, MPH, MBA, lead researcher and chief of the Diabetes Epidemiology Section at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Ga. The incidence of obesity has increased significantly over the last two decades and is one of the leading risk factors in the development of diabetes for both men and women.

Dr. Narayan and researchers at the CDC used data from the National Health Interview Survey (1984-2000) to estimate age, gender and race-specific prevalence and incidence of diabetes in the U.S. Mortality rates for diabetics and non-diabetics were also studied using data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Overall, women had a higher chance of developing diabetes over the course of their lives than did men. The study results reveal a 38.5 percent risk for females and a 32.8 percent risk for males. The Hispanic population has the greatest risk, with a 52.5 percent lifetime risk for women and a 45.4 percent lifetime risk for men.

"This is largely because women live longer," Dr. Narayan said, "though other factors may also play a role." More research is necessary to determine if hormonal, environmental, or biological issues contribute to the disproportionate numbers seen between men and women.

Although the study showed that Hispanic women had the greatest risk for developing diabetes, Dr. Narayan cautions that all men and women are at risk: "I am more impressed with the high risk in all groups. The reason why it may be highest in Hispanic women is complex and multiple. I would hesitate to pinpoint a reason."

Diabetes results from the body's inability to produce or respond to insulin, a hormone necessary for the absorption of sugar. There are several types of diabetes -- the main ones are Type 1 and Type 2. Type 2 is the most common and usually affects overweight people who are older than 45 with a history of the disease in their family. Diabetes can wreak havoc on the body, resulting in blood vessel, heart, kidney and eye diseases. It can also shorten a person's life.

Obesity and excessive weight gain are major contributors to diabetes. According to a surgeon general's report, a weight gain of 11 to 18 pounds increases a person's risk of developing Type 2 diabetes to twice that of individuals who have not gained weight.

Women with diabetes face distinct challenges. Roughly two to five percent of pregnant women develop gestational diabetes and are at an increased risk for developing Type 2 diabetes.

Gestational diabetes usually begins in the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy and can cause babies to have low blood sugar levels or excess weight. It can also make delivery more difficult, but most often goes away after the baby is born.

When compared with non-diabetic women, those with diabetes are much more likely to suffer from peripheral vascular disease, a condition in which the vessels narrow and oxygenated blood is not properly delivered to the body's extremities.

The risk of developing diabetes is substantial, but people can take steps to improve their odds. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can lower the chance of getting diabetes for both men and women. "Exercising thirty minutes per day, five to seven times a week and keeping your weight under control with a healthy diet," Dr. Narayan said.

The Society for Women's Health Research is the nation's only not-for-profit organization whose sole mission is to improve the health of women through research. Founded in 1990, the Society brought to national attention the need for the appropriate inclusion of women in major medical research studies and the resulting need for more information about conditions affecting women. The Society advocates increased funding for research on women's health, encourages the study of sex differences that may affect the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease, and promotes the inclusion of women in medical research studies. Dr. Donnica Moore has been a member of the Society since 1990 and is a past member of its Board of Directors.

Created: 11/6/2003  -  Jennifer Wider, M.D.
Reviewed: 11/6/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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